This week, photo-sharing start-up Color made huge news by securing a boatload of venture capital, banking on the idea that people in close proximity to one another will want to share photos. CEO Dan Nguyen said that Color was designed to be used with groups, but its effect is often to connect strangers through their photos on their mobile phones.
Connecting strangers through an Internet connection has, in the past, gone terribly wrong. Take Chatroulette as an obvious example, where the service could not be used without encountering an anonymous man exposing himself on your screen.
Despite its pitfalls, there was something extremely powerful about connecting with a stranger, webcam-to-webcame, and Nguyen's startup takes advantage of that draw while decreasing the risk of inappropriate conduct with two methods. The first: by adding proximity as an element that dilutes the anonymity of the interaction, thus decreasing the likelihood of bad behavior. The second, by further structuring the type of communication allowed -- although it's pretty easy to be offensive with a single image, it's still a bit harder than it is through video with a full audio connection.
Gaming offers an even more structured way to interact with people on the Web. Online gamers are completely familiar with interacting with strangers online; indeed it's one of the chief pleasures and pitfalls of online gaming to meet interesting strangers who may be profanity-spewing psychotics or actually pretty friendly chaps. But some games -- Words With Friends, a popular iPad/iPhone Scrabble-like game springs to mind -- can be played without any communication at all. Playing games with people at the same location as you could be an entertaining way to pass the time and even make connections with strangers, without Chatroulette-like risks of offensive content.
A great example of this can be seen on Delta's in-flight gaming options. A trivia game allows users to compete against the rest of the plane to answer various general knowledge questions, and users are identified by a self-chosen nickname plus their seat number. You can play against your fellow passengers in relative anonymity, but if you have a competitive game that comes down to the wire, you can look across the aisle and make an actual connection. It's because the communication among those strangers begins in a structured way -- through the game -- that allows them to qualify one another for an actual, personal conversation, thus avoiding the pitfalls of platforms like Chatroulette.